MNOs and public safety agencies: a meeting of minds

The push for mission-critical broadband, combined with spectrum and capital constraints, is causing public safety agencies to look to mobile network operators (MNOs). But given the latter’s different organisational cultures and priorities, what do agencies need to consider when negotiating with them? Simon Creasey investigates

Business relationships between government agencies and private companies are often fraught. Both sides have different agendas; both sides speak different languages and have different knowledge and skillsets. As a result, sometimes the relationships don’t run as smoothly as they should. But in the area of critical communications, these relationships can’t afford to fail because, if they do, lives can be at risk.

Over the past few years a number of business agreements between public safety agencies, governments and other organisations from the critical communications world have been struck with MNOs to provide connectivity. So what has this experience taught both sides and what do public safety agencies and MNOs need to consider when striking these agreements?

One company that has first-hand experience of working with public safety agencies is Airbus. It recently formed a secure mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) solution in Mexico called MXLINK, which is being used by the Mexican public safety and defence authorities.

According to Tapio Savunen, strategic marketing manager Finland, Secure Land Communications at Airbus: “The solution consists of a multi-network and multi-operator mobile broadband communications platform, with national coverage and security guaranteed by design. It offers highly differentiated services of mission-critical voice and high-speed data communication. It provides immediate individual or group communication; voice, messaging, video and broadband data, as well as interoperability with the RNR [national radio communication network] and other TETRA and Tetrapol technologies.”

Savunen says that when embarking on these types of relationships, the first thing that needs to be done is to clarify the objectives of the collaboration between the MNO and the public safety agency.

“What is the additional value MNOs can provide to public safety users?” he says. “Will they offer data applications and enrich the situational awareness to complement the existing professional mobile radio and critical communications voice-centric solutions? What are the concrete use-cases and applications the users are looking for? The more concrete and defined the user needs are, the better the starting point for MNO discussions.”

What Savunen outlines can sometimes be a problematic area, according to Jason Johur, strategy and market development director, mission critical and private networks at Ericsson, a board member of The Critical Communications Association (TCCA), and vice chair of the Broadband Industry Group (BIG), a TCCA working group.

“There are some MNOs that in the way they are set up today are very business-case-focused, and driven based on detailed return-on-investment arguments, and often they’re expecting agencies, governments and industries to have similar fully defined, rigorous and quantified business cases when electing to make investments in new technology, and often they’re surprised that this isn’t always the case,” he explains.

“Yes, some end customers have spent time and effort to understand and evaluate the qualitative and quantitative benefits associated with new use-cases, but for a number of end customers it’s simply a case of ensuring they have the best professional mobile communication solutions. As we all would recognise in our own lives, mobile communications are becoming so intrinsic to everything we do and, particularly to these businesses and governments, it’s intrinsic to their operations and any failure in that can have severe business impacts,” adds Johur.

Due to the high-stakes nature of these arrangements, Savunen says that the technical requirements of the agreement always need to be clarified from the outset. “Typically, the nature of public safety operations sets very high standards and demands on service availability, resilience and security,” he adds. “In technical terms, this means wide network coverage and a resilient radio access network, including a power supply back-up for the base stations and a resilient transmission network. MNO networks do not typically fulfil the most rigid demands of public safety. User organisations therefore need to figure out if there is flexibility on these requirements. A relevant option is to start with the existing service level of an MNO and gradually improve the capabilities of the network; for example, by extending the coverage on a need basis.”

Other issues that need to be taken into consideration from the outset include the financing model for the network investments that are typically required to enable these types of projects to progress smoothly.

“It may be done by the MNO which is making the investments on the basis that the average revenue per mission-critical user will be higher than that of a consumer, or maybe the governmental administration will be willing to capitalise an MNO’s investments,” says Savunen. “It may even be done by user organisations. A final solution may also be a combination of these options.”

The business model employed is also an essential question that needs addressing early on, with diverse capabilities put in place to create end-to-end public safety services. Part of this puzzle includes radio network services, but according to Savunen other technical capabilities that need to be considered are user devices, public safety applications, security solutions, provisioning of devices, organisations and end-users and overall service management.

Another additional factor that needs to be weighed up by all parties is the option of using several MNOs’ networks. “If several networks are available, it improves the availability and resilience of services,” says Savunen. “Although in case of several national MNOs, the coverage areas can be overlapping, usually the combined coverage of many MNOs is larger than the coverage of a single operator.”

While both sides are working towards achieving the same end goal there are clearly a number of fundamental differences between MNOs and public safety organisations.

“Mobile operators are to serve their consumer and enterprise customers, and create value for their shareholders,” explains Savunen. “Public safety organisations, on the other hand, are to ensure the safety and security of societies. When MNOs need to serve public safety users and their ordinary customers by using shared network resources, somehow the fundamental difference between these user groups needs to be solved.”

He adds that although there can be different priorities on a technical level, generally speaking these challenges can usually be resolved. Another hurdle that’s also not insurmountable is the cultural differences that exist between public sector and private sector parties.

Johur says one thing he has noticed is the impact the increasingly specialised nature of the MNOs has had on negotiations, which requires numerous participants to be involved in conversations with public sector partners.

“They [public safety agencies] may wonder why multiple experts need to be brought into a meeting to discuss a particular topic, but that’s because within the technology and business domains, within the mobile network operators and vendors, there is a huge amount of specialisation going on because the technologies and operations are so complex, and the businesses are so large and so optimised that there is a clear difference,” says Johur.

“That is significantly different from any environment the governments and industries are used to, where working with previous technologies there were often experts with a good enough overview of everything, so you were often able to talk to one or two people and get to discuss a particular topic or resolve something.”

The good news for public safety agencies looking to get advice on how to work with MNOs and fill in any knowledge gaps is there is plenty of help available out there.

“We’re lucky enough there are consultants and experts that exist within our community that have a long history in critical communications and lots of knowledge and experience from deploying previous LMR technologies,” says Johur. “Also, if you’re looking into the MNO model and 3GPP environment, there are a plentiful number of consultants operating there. We as vendors are there as well to help support all levels of conversations to enable this market, and we have experts that support various conversations between all major ecosystem players.”

He adds that one of the reasons TCCA exists is to support end-users and MNOs, and he encourages all interested parties to join the organisation. It’s a sentiment echoed by Philippe Agard, public safety and defence markets leader at Nokia, chair of the critical communications BIG working group and a board member of TCCA, who outlines the role the association can play.

“First the conversations happen with the suppliers and we contribute to evangelise and prepare the culture change,” says Agard. “Here is a good example of why TCCA is attractive and hopefully successful in bringing expert people to the table, especially now that players like Nokia and Ericsson are taking a very active role, and elected to the board. That was not at all an obvious step, but it was a huge step towards helping to change the culture. We are also seeing service providers joining TCCA who want to embrace the public safety business and adopt, and fit into, the culture. We see TCCA as a good environment to create this culture adoption. We are not saying this is the only place, but it is one way to make it happen. Service providers have dedicated people who look at this from a specific angle – they come from a team tasked to embrace the critical communications needs.”

Tero Pesonen, chairman of the Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG) at TCCA, agrees there is significant scope for parties on both sides to learn from one another.

“This is what TCCA CCBG for its own part accommodates by enabling public safety operators, user agencies and MNOs to meet and exchange knowledge,” says Pesonen. “To help MNOs get more familiar with critical communications we have produced a number of white papers to assist MNOs to choose a strategy fitting their overall thinking. One can decide to be just a data pipe or take a more comprehensive role looking after core services and applications running on it.”

Agard adds that the service provider culture needs to change, but additionally the operational approach taken by different ministry of interiors also needs to be transformed.

“This is a topic in several countries, the journey is starting to embrace critical broadband capabilities and mission-critical networks – we are working together with service providers to create a team to evangelise and successfully manage the transformation,” says Agard. “The government public safety operators organise themselves. They have created the International Governmental Operator Forum (IGOF), and one of the reasons for this is because they want to benefit from sharing the learnings in how they manage their journey.

“The good news is that with the early adopters, the journey towards mission-critical broadband has started – with FirstNet, with Safe-Net in South Korea – and they are sharing their knowledge, which makes it much easier for new players as they can knock at the door of their peers.”

One company that clearly sees the benefits TCCA offers is Netherlands-based SMVNO PrioCom, which joined the association in March. Marja Dieben, sales manager at PrioCom, explains that the company is addressing mission-critical communications outside of the realms of public safety and is currently working to serve the critical communications needs of industries such as petrochemicals using the cellular network.

“Most of the time these are on-site local organisations, so it’s not completely comparable in terms of usage with public safety because they tend to be more regional or national,” says Dieben. “You see in industry there is a drive for digitalisation of business processes, and part of that drive is they aim to get all business processed on a digital platform, which in turn drives the need to use rugged smartphones. They are also looking at PTT over Cellular to have a one device and platform solution and to expand beyond their traditional radio users to get more efficiency out of their operations. That part is very comparable with public safety because the whole digitalisation development is also ongoing with public safety.”

She says many companies in the private sector are already exploring hybrid models to start this migration process.

“What they’re looking at is the gradual transfer of TETRA radio users into the broadband space with PTT, so what’s going to be absolutely imperative is to deliver interoperability, which is also what TCCA is driving,” explains Dieben. “With the solution we have in the market we are able to provide a universal gateway to a number of traditional radio solutions.”

Operators like PrioCom are keen to embrace the significant changes that are currently occurring in the critical communications market and deliver solutions fit for purpose. MNOs are also shifting and adapting to meet these needs, according to Johur.

“Most government organisations and businesses have been using 3GPP-based technologies for many years, but largely in a best-effort environment,” he explains. “The difference now is that this paradigm has shifted, from a best-effort world to a mission-critical world, and a realisation that the services that industries and governments require have to work, and if they don’t then there are implications to that because more frequently businesses and lives can depend on those communications. Mobile network operators are now getting to grips with what that means.

“Five years ago, a number of people commentating on future market trends said they weren’t sure MNOs had the appetite to service these types of mission-critical customers, but we now clearly see many governments and industries, across many countries and regions, are proceeding with this. They’re all moving, and the MNOs are embracing it and are transforming to meet this new opportunity.”

For his part, Pesonen offers five key pieces of advice to ensure all interested parties are well placed to capitalise on the opportunity identified by Johur. “Discuss and co-operate with your peers internationally to identify commonalities and differences, build national strategy with all relevant stakeholders based on local assets and demands, ensure legal framework accordingly, plan transition carefully in all levels – including user organisation standard operating procedure shift from a narrowband to broadband information-centric way of working, and build common vision and co-operation for the good of the entire society,” says Pesonen. “Take as many small steps as possible as there is plenty of learning to do as well as possibilities to invent something new that no-one has understood before.”

This is something that Airbus’s Savunen knows full well. He says the company is currently working with customers on several mobile broadband projects and what he has learnt is they are all different and need tailored attention.

“The starting points in the country legislation and regulation can be different, the governmental organisations have different roles and objectives, the business models are different, and the engagement of user organisations can adopt different approaches, among many other criteria,” he says. “Simply put: one size does not fit all.”